Puckett leaves us wanting more

Hill: Puckett leaves us wanting more

I asked my nephew about Kirby Puckett. As a boy, my nephew lived in Minneapolis and had a chance to see Puckett play. In fact, my nephew attended school with Puckett's daughter.

So his perspective on the man was more personal than most people's.

"I liked Kirby," my nephew told me. "I liked Kirby a lot."

We all shared my nephew's view. For few men in sports have endeared themselves to us the way Puckett did.

Puckett was a person the common man could love. In the flashy world of sports, he lacked pretension. He looked like the man in the house down the street, potbelly and all. So it wasn't easy to see anything particularly impressive outwardly about Puckett the athlete -- not until you saw him play.

On the speedway-fast carpet at the Metrodome, he performed like Magic Johnson did at The Forum. And just like Magic, Puckett had a magnetic personality that made even my cynic of a nephew adore him.

It is that personality that people will remember most about Puckett, who died Monday at age 45 just one day after suffering a massive stroke. Not that his Hall of Fame career with the Twins was forgettable, because it wasn't. You can't put up the numbers of an All-Star, as he did, bring a city two World Series titles and be forgotten.

People don't forget men who win Game 7 of a Series. The few who do have their greatness etched into our minds, and we replay their starring moment over and over and over and ...

For you can't stop watching greatness. It would be like walking out early on a B.B. King concert. Do you dare?

Yet as delicious as greatness is to savor, you appreciate it even more when the person behind it comes with substance of character, too. You pray that public figures bring more to our world than just the ability to hit a baseball far or catch a football or create high-flying dunks that find their way onto SportsCenter.

Too often we come away with our prayers unanswered. We end up seeing great talents with deep flaws in their characters. Too many of them see "me, me, me" as the way to live their lives.

It would be a mistake, however, to try to tell another man how to live his life, for as most of us know, we have enough trouble living our own lives. Still, when the life is such a public one, as an athlete like Puckett's is, we seem to believe that we have a say in the matter.

And what we say to a man whose life is so public goes something like this: be decent.

Is it too much to ask that a star athlete "be decent"? Are we expecting too much from men who have not enough to give?

Yes, of course, we're expecting too much, which is why far too many of those public men disappoint us.

In life, Puckett never did. Yes, the rumor that drove him out of the public light might be a smudge on his character. But throughout the allegation that he groped a woman, Puckett remained steadfast in his denial, and he was acquitted. We believed him.

We believed Kirby Puckett because we got to see the character of the man. We believed Kirby Puckett because he'd made it impossible, through his public deeds, for anybody to do otherwise.

I believed him because my nephew did. A man who can win over somebody who's as suspicious about others as my now-grown nephew can only be a man worth believing in.

The hard truth is that we don't come across a lot of public men like this in our lives, and those men who do enter our Technicolor world infuse us with hope -- hope that wealth and fame and an oh-so-public life don't ruin men's character.

In Puckett's case, they didn't. He lived his life with an ever-ready smile, and that smile warmed us as much as a hug. His smile told us that all was good, even in the face of bad.

We need to see that smile now. For the only way we can view Puckett's death is with sadness. It was something horribly bad simply because of who he was.

As people, we are weaker for Puckett's not being around to shake our hands, to tell us that things are all right and to smile his reassuring smile, a smile that let us know that his words weren't meaningless chatter.

Those smiles never were meaningless -- not to my nephew. And not to me, either.

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.